APD Defends Flawed Yogurt Shop Case

Assistant chief rejects idea that “tunnel vision” played a role in the investigation

Clockwise from top left: Sarah Harbison, 15; Amy Ayers, 13; Eliza Thomas, 17; and Jennifer Harbison, 
17, were found murdered inside the I Can't Believe
 It's Yogurt! shop in North Austin on Dec. 6, 1991.
Clockwise from top left: Sarah Harbison, 15; Amy Ayers, 13; Eliza Thomas, 17; and Jennifer Harbison, 17, were found murdered inside the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! shop in North Austin on Dec. 6, 1991.

The Austin Police Department has considered whether "tunnel vision" or "groupthink" infected its investigation of the infamous 1991 yogurt shop slayings, Assistant Chief David Carter told the Public Safety Com­mis­sion March 5, and has concluded that neither common malady has played a role in the unsolved case. Indeed, Carter said, when outside investigator Robert Kep­pel – famous for his work on the Ted Bundy, Green River Killer, and Atlanta child murders cases – was asked to review APD's "new" investigation in 1998, he gave the APD's work a nod of approval, telling police officials that they "were, in fact, going in the right direction" with the revamped investigation. Keppel had been asked to review the department's work after seven years of investigation had failed to find the person or persons responsible for the brutal murder of four teen girls inside a North Austin yogurt shop.

As it turns out, the direction that the APD was on in 1998, the one given the Keppel seal, was flawed: The revamped investigation, given to the newly formed Cold Case Unit, produced four suspects and two convictions that were subsequently overturned by appellate courts. Moreover, in 2008, newly tested DNA evidence obtained from the youngest victim did not match any of the four suspects; to date, the owner of that DNA (as well as a second male DNA profile found at the scene) has not been found.

Given those circumstances, "I'm afraid that nothing you've said has done [anything] to relieve any of my concerns," Commission Vice Chair Kim Ross­mo told Carter. Rossmo last month asked Carter to consider whether tunnel vision or groupthink might have compromised the ongoing inquiry; it appears that Keppel's 1998 nod of approval convinced the APD that neither problem could be at work. Carter declined to discuss any details of the current investigation, but said an outside review of the APD's work on the case "has happened in the past and may occur in the future."

Commissioner Mike Levy asked if the department would be willing to recommend that an external review take place. "I can assure you," Carter replied, "if [APD has a] cold case that needs external review" the department would be open to it. But whether the APD feels that's necessary now, in the yogurt shop case, remains a mystery. (For more on the case, see "Scene of the Crime," Dec. 16, 2011.)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

yogurt shop murders, Austin Police Department, APD, David Carter, Kim Rossmo, Mike Levy, Public Safety Commission, Robert Keppel, cold case

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